A Repeat of the Southern Strategy, Minus the Dog Whistles

I wonder if anyone else noticed that the quote I used previously from Jonathan Swan about the White House meeting on infrastructure included this:

White House political director Bill Stepien said the group needed to consider the midterm elections when deciding when to finally make their big push. Some in the White House are skeptical that infrastructure will drive Republican voters to the polls.

What’s up with that? As I recall, Trump’s focus on infrastructure was one of his two great appeals that separated him from traditional Republicans, the other being his promise to re-negotiate trade deals. According to Steve Bannon, infrastructure investment was going to be the foundation for an entirely new political movement.

“Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” he says. “It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”

Now there is concern about launching a plan because it won’t “drive Republican voters to the polls” in the 2018 midterm elections. That’s a pretty dramatic about-face.

As many people have suggested, it looks like Trump got a little spooked by the reaction of his base to things like his deal-making with Pelosi and Schumer on budget issues in September as well as his endorsement of Luther Strange in the Alabama Senate primary. Ever since then, he’s been stoking the issues that tend to rile up his base. Interestingly enough, they have nothing to do with trade and infrastructure and everything to do with race-baiting, Islamophobia, and standing firmly behind a child molester.

During a speech last night in Missouri to promote the Republican tax cut plan, Trump went public for the first time with what I suggested will likely be his next legislative agenda item.

But welfare reform, I see it, and I’ve talked to people. I know people that work three jobs and they live next to somebody who doesn’t work at all. And the person who is not working at all and has no intention of working at all is making more money and doing better than the person that’s working his and her ass off. And it’s not going to happen. Not going to happen.

Trump seems to know his base better than a lot of white liberal pundits. He recognizes that they are not likely to get fired up about an infrastructure plan or a re-negotiated trade deal. It is the politics of resentment that serves as the red meat that will drive them to the polls in 2018.

This is not a new strategy for Republicans. It is a replication of their Southern Strategy—minus the dog whistles. Over time, the party’s insurgents have added anti-immigrant and Islamophobic fears into the mix, as well as the other issues that inflame nostalgia voters. But basically it is the same toxic brew.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.